When Tom Waits released Alice and Blood Money simultaneously a few months ago, the reasons for his putting the two records out separately were self-evident: They were two explicitly different projects, separated by tone and concept. Frank Black may feel that the same holds true for his current dual release of Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop, but if so, his reasoning is far from clear. A much stronger album could have been culled from the best of these 29 tracks; indeed, a much stronger album could have been culled from the 18 songs on Black Letter Days alone.
Which is to say that Devil's Workshop sounds like an afterthought: Recorded immediately after Black Letter Days, it lacks the latter's arresting urgency. There's fat on Black Letter Days: The dirgey "How You Went So Far" chops off the album's momentum at the knees, and the masturbatory guitar solo on "1826" is worthy (if that's the word) of the Allman Brothers. But the record feels more like one cohesive project, united by echoing themes of longing and escape, road-movie imagery, and country-rock stylings. Plus, it contains a few genuine rip-roarers; among them, the marvelously strange album opener "The Black Rider" and "Jane Queen of Love" rise to the challenge of comparison with Black's storied back catalog.
Otherwise, the album's best tracks continue in the vein of Dog in the Sand's "St. Francis Dam Disaster." "End of Miles" and "21 Reasons" come off like Iggy Pop covering the Eagles -- a decidedly odd but satisfying synthesis that works because Frank Black remains a god among men when it comes to finding something fraught and mysterious in even the most traditional-seeming songs. Only he could make the forlornness of the line "She's my Helen of Troy" (from the excellent, Pixiesish "Chip Away Boy") carry the full weight of its classical reference or rescue the slow-moving "Farewell Bound" with a stabbing coda. These moments -- and many others -- make you wish Black Letter Days were more disciplined. These same moments exist on Devil's Workshop, too, but they don't redeem that album to the same degree, because they have more work to do. It's good to know that Frank Black is still prolifically creative; it would be better if he had telescoped that output into a single vital work.